On Sunday, several hundred million people around the globe will tune in to watch the World Cup final. For ninety minutes, the players will engage in a contest of stamina and skill, sprinting up and down the field. If the game is tied, there will be an extra half hour to try to resolve the contest. But what if the game is still tied? This is where things get really silly.
Americans who have tuned into the World Cup for the first time may have been bemused by the concept of the "penalty shootout." Each team alternates a series of five shots from 36 feet away. Whichever team scores the most chances will win. To many, this seems like ending a tied football game with a series of short field goals, or a basketball game with a free throw shooting contest. Indeed, since the penalty shootout was adopted by FIFA in 1982, the success rate for players is around 75 percent, just about the average NBA free throw percentage.
What are the problems with the penalty shootout? To begin with, it bears little relation with the rest of the soccer game. When ties in sports are decided by extending the time of regular play, the basic structure of play is preserved. Another problem is that, as players themselves acknowledge, there is a certain amount of luck in the penalty shootout. The penalty shot sometimes comes down to a guessing game between the shooter and the goalie, who must choose a side towards which to lunge as the shot is launched. While surely there is less luck involved than the earlier system of deciding ties by a coin flip, there is a certain amount of randomness, turning a game of skill and stamina into a game of chance. The emotional state of entire countries comes down to what is in essence a free throw into a randomly moving basket.
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